By Michael Hall
February 6, 2020
BOLOGNA, Italy — Walking towards the sliding door on the way to the water fountain, Giulio’s bar is a collection of aggressively-lit roadside furniture. While one hand digs in a pocket for a plastic card with peeling filament, the other puts forth a bottle; sea-foam green, translucent razzmatazz, a cratered plastic bottle: any and all drinking apparatuses parade towards the small room inconveniently protected by a card scanner. All colors-sensations really- seem to dull, however, in the water fountain’s enclave. Behind the semi-transparent door and across from the student mailboxes sits an isolated monument: the Cosmetal Niagara 180 SL. Entirely unadorned with worn duct tape on the top corner, SAIS Bologna’s water-bottle filler has created the most daunting social grounds, a hot-bed for nervous glances, forced smiles, and elongated silences.
There is reason for intrigue in this admittedly stale space. It’s not a mailroom, certainly unlike any vestibule I’ve ever seen, and may the heavens strike down any person who may describe this place as a “kitchen.” It is, however, large enough for a group of three to comfortably chat. But if a passerby enters there immediately arises a series of doubts. Do I have to stop and say “hi”? Do I circumvent to the left or right? If I squeeze through the side, do I give the rump or the crotch? The space’s small size provides only an illusion of privacy; the nearby staircase feeds into the student lounge, promising eavesdropping on any small-talk. Alas, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. What is most ripe for analysis is the choice any hydrated student here has faced: whether or not to fill up one’s water bottle if there is already someone using the fountain.
What should be quotidian is instead a loaded decision. Choosing to fill up your bottle at the same time as someone else opens the floodgates for conversation. The shoulder-to-shoulder posture, mutual one-way gazes, a shared celebration in the benefits of hydration: expectations for conversation reach an all-time high. And by conversation, I mean conversation. As defendants of the one-at-a-time dogma will surely remind you, the fountain’s rate slows noticeably under the perceived strain of two users. As such, a simple salutation doesn’t quite suffice, only underlining your disengaging small talk when business cards and email exchanges aren’t at stake. If you choose to fill up next to another student, you are committing to at least half a minute of chit-chat; if they have a Hydro Flask you might as well pretend you have to pee and run while you can.
The end result: we make like Ryanair passengers and file in line, bottle-in-hand rather than a passport, creating an environment as equally convivial as a drab airport terminal. Desperate eyes scatter to the uncomfortable angles where only an insect exterminator takes an interest. The silence depresses social interactions to soft-smiles, nods, and one-syllable greetings.
When I leave SAIS, let it be known that I fought bravely. It took months for this war of attrition to conquer my enthusiasm at the fountain. I said hello; I exposed my teeth when I smiled; I invited others to share in the fountain’s wonders side-by-side. Yet, repeatedly, I was given the same response: “Oh, well it goes slower if we both use it.” Well, that is just simply false, I now reply proudly.
Equipped with scientific skepticism, I waited into the late hours of the night, when the sun had long set and local Bolognese begin to consider having dinner sometime soon. I put the Cosmetal Niagara 180 SL water dispenser to the test, first filling two, equal-size bottles at the same time, before then, using the same bottles, filling one at a time. In a battle that came down to mere seconds (5.4), efficiency sided with two bottles at once.
Anti-social defenses now ring hollow in these ears! Your claims are useless, and I’ll deflect them instantly to counter instead with inquiries on your dinner last night. If all we care about is expediting the process—saving time by avoiding interactions with people we feel obligated to greet but couldn’t say how many siblings they have—then the most rational decision is to fill-up simultaneously.
Since completing my research, I’ve accosted quite a few students with my findings. Some react better than others, and in the same way I can tell when Serena the cashier couldn’t care less about my failed chocolate mousse, it is apparent when someone prefers peace to an overly-effervescent colleague. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact, I think most of us could mention a friend or special someone we’ve been able to share silence with, and just how cathartic it can be. But for those of us who are eager to meet each other, the first move is most often appreciated. Midst his graceful canter in a soccer match, a dreamy-eyed chap named Euan introduced himself to me, acknowledging our prior glances; I now, call that budding scholar, my friend! While we don’t need to all be friends, I’d argue we can at-least lay aside our arms in repelling social advances—especially since the argument du jour has been disproven by yours truly.